Rick Santorum won Thursday night’s debate in South Carolina. In doing so, he may also have forced a major turning point in this presidential campaign. Before Thursday, Newt Gingrich, I believe, was seen by many voters as a flawed candidate, who nonetheless remained a viable choice for the Republican nomination because he was the best debater among the non-Romneys in the Republican field. After last night, that is no longer true. Santorum has become a better debater than Gingrich. Why? First, because unlike both Romney and Gingrich, Santorum is clearly expressing his heartfelt beliefs — a rare thing among American politicians, and a thing, I believe, that is recognized and prized by voters. Second, Santorum’s well-stated attacks on both Romney and Gingrich hit their marks and Romney and Gingrich did not effectively rebut them. This was especially true of Santorum’s point that both Romney and Gingrich supported an individual mandate for health insurance — the most important reason people who love liberty reject Obamacare. Finally, unlike Gingrich, who incessantly tells people he is a “Reagan conservative” — which is a very good thing, to be sure — Santorum has shown the courage, including in last night’s debate, to lay out his own unique vision for the future of America. That vision, which is generally consistent with conservative principles, seems to be drawn from his personal experience and from his personal analysis of the present historical situation rather than from his desire to associate himself with a great conservative hero of the past.
If you want to be a conservative hero for the future, you better have a compelling vision for the future as well as the ability to persuade people to follow you toward it. Last night, Santorum demonstrated he may be developing exactly that ability.